Suzanne Vega was an anomaly in the ’80s music scene. Her straightforward, almost childlike vocals and minimally produced sound were a refreshing change from the musical excesses of the era.
An artist in the true singer/songwriter tradition, her simple narrative style captured the public’s attention, elevating songs like “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner” to the top of the charts. Ms. Vega became known as an observer and chronicler of life in New York City and her lyrics are pure poetry set to catchy tunes that evoke emotions that are often hard to pinpoint.
For three decades, Ms. Vega has enjoyed a successful musical career, continuously recording and touring. Most recently she recorded new material in a 2007 CD “Beauty and Crime,” and she is currently releasing a four-part series of re-recordings of some of her songs. Her latest project, a music theater piece based on the writings of Carson McCullers, will be presented as a work in progress this weekend at The Yard before premiering at New York City’s Rattlestick Theater.
Ms. Vega first started work on the project while at Barnard College, where she studied English literature. At a Paul Simon concert, Ms. Vega met director Kay Matschullat and mentioned the long-shelved project. Ms. Matschullat, who has worked with such preeminent playwrights as Pulitzer Prize winner Derek Walcott, Ariel Dorfman and (briefly) Tennessee Williams, was smitten with the idea of getting involved with the project and the two started working on a full length piece.
“I was immediately intrigued, as the combination of Suzanne and Carson seemed magical,” Ms. Matschullat said. “I had recently re-read the ‘The Heart is a Lonely Hunter’ [by Carson McCullers] — there are no such things as coincidences — and immediately realized that Suzanne strongly resembles Carson but more importantly she has Carson’s strength and a similar dedication to portraying the human heart in all its complexity.”
Ms. Matschullat notes that right after her introduction to the singer they started working together to flesh out the material. “I then introduced David Van Asselt, the artistic director of Rattlestick to the project and he has shepherded it through the stages of development,” Ms. Matschullat says. “Suzanne has expanded the text over the last few months and will continue to do so until we premier in New York next spring at The Rattlestick Theater.”
Also brought on board was singer/songwriter Duncan Sheik who has toured many times with Ms. Vega. His impressive composing credits include two Tony awards for his work on the Broadway musical “Spring Awakening.”
“His fabulous combination of lyricism and edgy harmonies seemed perfect to portray Carson and her work, where there are lovers both gentle and grotesque,” Ms. Matschullat says. “During this week in residency at The Yard she and Duncan will focus on the marriage of the music with the lyrics.”
The artistic team is currently in residence at The Yard and will share their work-in-progress in two intimate presentations on August 28 and 29 at 6:30 pm.
“This is our first presentation of the text with the music Suzanne and Duncan are in the process of creating with the amazing Gerry Leonard, the music director who has a long history with both artists,” Ms. Matschullat says. “It’s great to have this time to try out some of the material on a Vineyard audience.”
Gwyn McAllister, who lives in Oak Bluffs, is a regular contributor to The Times.